Bastiat, Spoliation by Law
- Essays on Bastiat
- Essays on Economics: 19thC French Political Economy in Lalor's Cyclopedia
Source: This article first appeared in the Dictionnaire d'Économie Politique, ed. Guillaumin and Charles Coquelin (Paris: Guillaumin, 1852) and was translated into English and included in Lalor's Cyclopedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States by the best American and European Authors, ed. John J. Lalor (Chicago: M.B. Carey, 1899) in Vol 2 East India Co. - Nullification Chapter: LAW, Spoliation by
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Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was one of the leading advocates of free markets and free trade in the mid-19 century. He was inspired by the activities of Richard Cobden and the organization of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in the 1840s and tried to mimic their success in France. Bastiat was an elected member of various French political bodies and opposed both protection and the rise of socialist ideas in these forums. His writings for a broader audience were very popular and were quickly translated and republished in the U.S. and throughout Europe. His incomplete magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, is full of insights into the operation of the market and is still of great interest to economists. He died at a young age from cancer of the throat. [The image comes from “The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.”]
LAW, Spoliation by
LAW, Spoliation by. What is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate defense. Every man certainly has received from nature, from God, the right to defend his person, his liberty and his property, since these are the three constitutive or conservative elements of life, elements which complement one another, and which can not be understood, one without the other. For what are our faculties but an extension of our personality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every man has the right to defend, even by force, his person, his liberty and his property, a number of men have the right to concert together, to agree and to organize a common force in order to provide regularly for this defense. The collective right has its principle, and its reason of being, and bases its legitimacy upon the individual right, and the common force can not legitimately have any other end or any other mission than the isolated forces for which it is substituted. Thus, as an individual can not legitimately make any forcible attempt against the person, liberty or property of another individual, so, for the same reason, a community can not legitimately make use of force to destroy the person, liberty or property of individuals or of classes. For this perversion of force would be, in the latter case, as well as in the former, in contradiction to our premises. Who will dare to say that we have been gifted with strength, not to defend our rights, but to destroy the equal rights of our fellow-men? And if this is not true of the force of each individual, when acting alone, how can it be true of the collective force, which is but the organized union of individual force? The following proposition, therefore, is a most plainly evident truth: law is the organization of the natural right of legitimate defense; it is the substitution of collective force for the force of individuals, to act in the circle in which these latter have the right to act, to do what these latter have the right to do, to guarantee life, liberty and property, to maintain every one in his rights, to mete out justice to all.
—Unfortunately, the law has not confined itself to playing its part. Nor has it erred simply by the adoption of neutral views or of views open to discussion. It has done worse than this; it has acted contrary to its end; it has destroyed the very object of its existence; it has endeavored to abolish that very justice whose reign it ought to inaugurate, to blot out that limitation of different rights which it was its mission to cause to be respected; it has put the force of the community at the service of those who wish to turn to their own advantage, without risk or scruple, the person, the liberty or the property of others; it has turned spoliation into a right, in order to protect it, and has made legitimate defense a crime, in order to punish it. How has this perversion of law been accomplished? What have been the consequences of it? Two very different causes have led to this perversion of law: ignorant egoism and false philanthropy. Let us consider the first of these causes.
—So truly are self-preservation and development the common aspiration of all men, that, if all enjoyed the free exercise of their faculties and the free disposal of their products, social progress would be incessant, uninterrupted and unfailing. But there is another disposition which all men possess in common. This is the disposition to live and develop, one at the expense of another. This is not a bold imputation, prompted by a peevish and croaking spirit. History bears testimony to its truth by the incessant wars, the migrations of nations, by priestly oppression, the universality of slavery, and the industrial frauds and monopolies with which its annals are filled. This unfortunate disposition springs from the very constitution of man, from that primitive, universal and invincible sentiment which impels him to seek happiness and fly from pain. Man can live and enjoy only by assimilation, by a perpetual appropriation, that is, by a perpetual application of his faculties to things, or by labor. This is the source of the right of property. But he may, in fact, live and enjoy by assimilating and appropriating to himself the product of his neighbor's faculties. Hence spoliation. Now, as labor is itself a pain, and man is naturally inclined to avoid pain, it follows, and history serves to prove it, that spoliation prevails wherever it is less burdensome than labor; and so prevails that neither religion nor morality is able to prevent it. When, therefore, may we expect an end of spoliation? When it becomes more burdensome and more dangerous than labor.
—It is very evident that the aim of the law should be to oppose the power of collective force to this lamentable tendency, and side with property against spoliation. But the law is generally made by a man or a class of men. And, as law can not exist without a sanction, without the support of a preponderating force, this force must of necessity be ultimately placed in the hands of those who make the laws. This inevitable phenomenon, and the unfortunate disposition which we have shown to exist in the heart of man, serve to explain the almost universal perversion of law. It may readily be conceived how, instead of acting as a restraint upon injustice, it becomes its most irresistible instrument. It may readily be conceived that, according to the power of the legislator, it destroys for his profit and in different degrees the personality of other men by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property by spoliation. It is in the nature of man to rebel when made the victim of iniquity. When, therefore, spoliation is organized by law for the benefit of the lawmakers, all the classes despoiled endeavor, either by peaceful or by revolutionary means, to have some share in the making of the laws. These classes, according to the degree of enlightenment which they have reached, may be actuated by one of two very different motives in thus aiming to acquire their political rights: either they desire to put an end to legal spoliation, or they aspire to a share in it. Unhappy, thrice unhappy, the nations in which this latter thought prevails among the masses when they, in their turn, possess themselves of the legislative power:—Hitherto legal spoliation has been practiced by the few on the many, so that it was to be found only among nations in which the right to legislate was concentrated in the hands of a few men. But it has now become universal, and an equilibrium is sought for in universal spoliation! Instead of weeding out the injustice which society contained, men are making this injustice more general. As soon as the disinherited classes recover their political rights, the first thought which possesses them is, not to free themselves from spoliation, (this would suppose in them an enlightenment which they do not possess), but to organize against the other classes, and to their own detriment, a system of reprisals, as if such conduct must not, even before the beginning of the reign of justice, bring down a cruel retribution upon them all—on the one class because of their iniquity, and on the other because of their ignorance. It would be impossible to introduce a greater change or a greater misfortune than this conversion of the law into an instrument of spoliation. What are the consequences of such a disturbance? It would require volumes to describe them all. We shall merely indicate the most striking ones.
—First, it effaces from the conscience the idea of justice and injustice. No society can exist in which there is not some degree of respect for the laws; but the surest way to have the laws respected is to make them respectable. When the law and morality are opposed to each other, the citizen finds himself placed in the cruel alternative of sacrificing either his ideas of morality or his respect for the law: two evils, the one as great as the other, and between which it is difficult to choose. It is so much the nature of law to cause justice to reign, that law and justice are one and the same thing in the opinion of the masses. We are all strongly disposed to regard what is legal as legitimate, so much so that there are many who falsely derive all justice from law. It suffices, therefore, that the law ordains and sanctions spoliation to make it appear just and sacred to the consciences of many. Slavery, constraint and monopoly find defenders not only in those who profit by them, but also among those who suffer from them. If you undertake to propose any doubts as to the morality of these institutions, you will be called a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a theorist, a contemner of the laws; you will be told that you are disturbing the foundation upon which society rests. So that, if there exist a law which sanctions slavery or monopoly, oppression or spoliation under any form, it will not even be necessary to speak of it; for how shall we speak of it without lessening the respect which it inspires? Moreover, it will be necessary to teach morality and political economy in keeping with this law, that is, upon the supposition that whatever is law is, for that reason alone, just.
—Is there any need to prove that this odious perversion of law is a perpetual cause of hatred and discord, leading even to social disorganization? Let us look at the United States. Here, of all the countries of the world, the law most strictly adheres to its proper rôle, which is, to guarantee to every one his liberty and property. Hence it is, of all the countries of the world, that in which social order seems to rest upon the most solid basis. Still, in these United States, there are two questions, and only two, which have several times imperiled political order. And what are these two questions? Slavery and the tariff, that is to say, precisely the only two questions in which the law, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, assumed the character of a despoiler. Slavery is a violation of personal rights sanctioned by law. Protection is a violation of the right of property, perpetrated by law; and it is certainly very remarkable that, in the midst of so many other questions of debate, this double legal scourge, the sad heritage of the old world, is the only one that may possibly threaten to lead to the dissolution of the Union. In fact, we can not imagine any greater misfortune than the law made an instrument of injustice. And if this fact engendered such dreadful consequences in the United States, where it was only of exceptional occurrence, what must it not produce in Europe, where it is a principle and a system?—"We should make war upon socialism," said Montalembert, borrowing the thought of a famous proclamation of Carlier, "with law, honor and justice." But Montalembert fails to perceive that he places himself in a vicious circle. He would oppose law to socialism. But law is the very power which socialism appeals to. It does not aim at extra-legal but at legal spoliation. It pretends, like monopolists of every class, to use the law as an instrument to accomplish its ends; and once it has the law on its side, how can you turn the law against it? How can you try, convict or imprison its followers? You wish to exclude socialism from all share in the framing of the laws. You wish to keep it out of the legislative halls. I dare predict that you will never succeed in this so long as the laws enacted within these halls acknowledge the principle of legal spoliation. It is too unjust and too absurd.
—This question of legal spoliation must be solved, and there are only three solutions of it: Let the few despoil the many; let every man despoil every other man; let no one despoil any one. We must choose between partial spoliation, universal spoliation, and no spoliation; the law can achieve but one of these three results. Partial spoliation. This system prevailed as long as the right of election was partial, and men are returning to it in order to escape the invasion of socialism. Universal spoliation is the system with which France was threatened when the electoral right became universal; the masses conceived the idea of legislating upon the principle of the legislators who preceded them. No spoliation is the principle of peace, order, stability, reconciliation and good sense which I shall proclaim with all the strength of my poor lungs to my very last breath. And can we honestly ask anything more of the law? Can the law, which has force for its necessary sanction, be reasonably employed for any other purpose than to preserve every one in his rights? I defy any one to employ the law for any other purpose without perverting it, and consequently without turning force against right. And as this is the most lamentable and most illogical social disturbance that can be imagined, it will be well to recognize that the true solution of this social problem, so much sought after, is to be found in these simple words: Law is organized justice.
—Now, let us mark well that to organize justice by law, that is by force, excludes the idea of organizing by law or by force any manifestation whatever of human activity: labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, the fine arts, or religion; for it is impossible for one of these secondary organizations not to destroy the essential organization. How, in fact, can we imagine force encroaching upon the liberty of citizens without assailing justice, without acting against its own end? I am now attacking the most popular prejudice of our time. This prejudice not only wishes the law to be just; it wishes it also to be philanthropic. It does not consider it sufficient that the law should guarantee each citizen the full and unrestricted exercise of his faculties applied to his physical, intellectual and moral development; it requires that the law directly diffuse prosperity, education and morality. This is the seductive side of socialism. The socialists say to us: since the law organizes justice, why should it not organize labor, education and religion? Why? Because it could not organize labor, education and religion without disorganizing justice. Notice, therefore, that law is force, and that consequently the domain of law can not legitimately go beyond the lawful domain of force. When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they do not impose upon him anything but a negation. They merely require him to abstain from injuring others. They attack neither his person, his liberty, nor his property. They merely protect the person, liberty and property of others. They stand upon the defensive; they defend the equal right of all. They fulfill a mission, whose harmlessness is evident, whose utility is palpable, and whose lawfulness is incontestable. This is as true as if one of my friends were to observe to me that to say that the object of law is to cause justice to reign, is to use an expression which is not rigorously exact. We should say the object of law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, justice has no existence of its own, it is injustice that exists. The one results from the absence of the other. But when the law—through the medium of its necessary agent, force—imposes a certain kind of labor, a method or manner of education, a form of faith or manner of worship, upon men, it does not act negatively, but positively. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their will, the initiative of the legislator for their initiative. They no longer have to reflect, compare or foresee; the law does all this for them. Their intelligence becomes a useless possession; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty and their property. Imagine, if you can, a form of labor imposed by force, which is not an attempt against liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force which is not an attempt against property. If you can not succeed in this, acknowledge that the law can not organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.
—When a publicist, from the seclusion of his study, allows his eyes to wander over society, he is struck by the spectacle of the inequality which presents itself to him. He groans over the sufferings which are the lot of so great a number of his brethren, sufferings, the sight of which is rendered still sadder by contrast with surrounding luxury and opulence. He should perhaps ask himself whether the cause of such a social state is not to be found in old spoliations, caused by conquest, and new spoliations caused by the laws. He should ask himself whether, with the aspiration of all men toward happiness and improvement, the reign of justice would not lead to the realization of the greatest activity of progress and the greatest amount of equality compatible with individual responsibility. But his thoughts do not rest here. They run on to combinations, arrangements and organizations, legal or factitious. He seeks the remedy for the evil in the perpetuation and exaggeration of the very thing which produced it. For, besides justice, which as we have seen is really nothing more than a negation, are there any of these legal arrangements which do not include the principle of spoliation?
—You say: "Here are men who have no wealth," and appeal to the law to correct the evil. Nothing enters into the public treasury for the benefit of a citizen or a class but what other citizens or other classes have been forced to put there. If each one is entitled only to draw from it merely the equivalent of what he has put in, your law, it is true, escapes the imputation of spoliation, but it does nothing for those men who hare no wealth, it does nothing for equality. It can not be an instrument of equalization unless it take from some to give to others, and then it becomes an instrument of spoliation. Examine, from this point of view, protective tariffs, subsidies, the right to a profit, the right to labor, the right to assistance, the right to education, progressive taxation, gratuitous credit, co-operative workshops, and you will always find, at the bottom, legal spoliation and organized injustice.
—You say: "Here are men who lack enlightenment," and you appeal to the law for them. But the law is not a torch that sheds its own light afar. It hovers over a society in which there are men who are educated and men who are not; citizens who need to be taught, and others who are able and willing to teach. The law must do one of two things: either it must leave matters of this kind to be performed with entire liberty, it must leave this kind of wants to be freely satisfied; or else it must exercise force over men's wills, and take from some wherewith to pay the professors who are engaged to teach others free of charge. But it can not prevent its conduct in this second case from being an attempt against liberty and property, or, in other words, legal spoliation—You say: "Here are men who are devoid of morality or religion," and appeal to the law. But the law is force, and can there be any need to remark how violent and foolish a proceeding it would be to invoke the aid of force in these matters?
—After all its systems and attempts, socialism seems unable to avoid perceiving the monstrosity of legal spoliation. But what does it do? It skillfully disguises it from all eyes, even from its own, under the seductive names of fraternity, solidarity, organization and association. And because we do not ask as much of the law, because we do not exact of it anything but justice, socialists suppose that we reject fraternity, solidarity, organization and association, and jeeringly style us individualists. Let us inform them, therefore, that it is not natural but forced organization that we reject; not free association, but the forms of association which socialism pretends to impose upon us; not spontaneous but legal fraternity; not providential but artificial solidarity, which is but an unjust displacement of responsibility.— Socialism, like the old political system from which it emanates, confounds government and society. And therefore it is, that whenever we do not want a thing done by the government, socialism concludes that we do not want it done at all. We reject education by the state; therefore we do not want education at all. We reject a state religion; therefore we reject all religion. We reject equalization by the state; therefore we do not desire equality, etc. It is as if our socialistic friends were to accuse us of not wishing men to eat, because we do not advocate the cultivation of wheat by the state. How has this whimsical idea been able to gain ground in the political world; this idea which would draw from the law what the law does not contain: good, in the positive sense, riches, science, and religion?
—Modern publicists, particularly those of the socialistic school, base their different theories upon one common hypothesis, truly the strangest and proudest hypothesis which could enter into a human brain. They divide mankind into two parts. All the human species, less one individual, form the first part, the publicist himself alone forms the second, and by far the most important part. In fact, they begin by supposing that men have within them neither a principle of action, nor a means of discernment; that they are devoid of initiative; that they are formed of inert matter, of passive molecules, of atoms lacking spontaneity, at most but a vegetation indifferent to its proper mode of existence, capable of receiving from the hand and will of another an infinite number of forms more or less symmetrical, artistic, and more or less perfect. Next, each of them supposes, without any ceremony whatever, that he himself under the names of organizer, revealer, legislator, teacher, or founder, is this will and this hand, this universum mobile, this creative power whose sublime mission it is to reunite in society these scattered human materials. Starting from these data, as each gardener trims his trees according to his fancy, in the shape of pyramids, umbrellas, cubes, vases, fruits, distaffs and fans; so every socialist, according to his whim, trims poor humanity in groups, series, centres, subcentres, alveoles, social workshops, harmonic societies, etc., etc. And, just as the gardener has need of hatchets, saws, pruning knives and scissors to regulate the height of his trees, so the publicist, in order to manage his society, needs forces which he can find only in laws: the customs laws, the laws regulating taxes, public charity and education. The socialists, it is true, consider humanity as material for social combinations, so that, if by chance they are not very sure of the success of these combinations, they claim at least a certain portion of mankind as material for experimentation. It is well known how popular the idea of trying all systems is among them, and one of their leaders even went so far as to ask of the French constituent assembly, in all earnestness, a commune and all its inhabitants to try his system on. It is thus every inventor makes his invention in miniature before making it of full size. It is thus the chemist sacrifices certain re-agents, or the farmer sacrifices some seed and a corner of his field in order to test an idea. But what an incommensurable distance between the gardener and his trees, between the inventor and his invention, between the chemist and his re-agents, between the farmer and his seed! The socialist believes in good faith that the same distance separates him from humanity.
—We need not wonder that the publicists of the nineteenth century consider society as an artificial creation, the work of the legislator's genius. This idea, the result of classical education, has swayed all the deep thinkers and all the great writers of France. All of them find between humanity and the legislator the same relations which exist between the clay and the potter. To show how universal this strange disposition of minds has been in France, I should have to copy all of Mably, all of Raynal, all of Rousseau, all of Fénelon, and extensive extracts from Bossuet and Montesquieu. I should, besides, have to reproduce in full the proceedings of the various sittings of the convention. This task I shall leave for my reader to undertake.
—One of the strangest phenomena of our times, and one which will, probably, very greatly astonish our grandchildren, is, that the doctrine which is based upon the triple hypothesis of the radical inertness of mankind, the impotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator, is the creed of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic. It likewise styles itself social. Inasmuch as it is democratic, it has an unlimited faith in humanity. By its socialism it drags humanity into the mire.
—If it be a question of political rights, or of driving out the legislator: oh! then, according to this socialistic doctrine, the people are possessed of infused science, and endowed with admirable tact; their will is always right, the popular will can never err. Suffrage can not be too universal. No one owes society any guarantee. The will and the capacity to choose wisely are always supposed. Can the people be deceived? Are we not in the age of enlightenment? Shall the people remain forever in tutelage? Have they not acquired their rights by their own labors and sacrifices? Have they not given sufficient proofs of their intelligence and wisdom? Have they not reached their maturity? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know their own interests? Will any man or class of men dare claim the right of putting himself in the people's place, and of deciding and acting for them? No; the people wish to be and shall be free. They wish to direct their own affairs, and they shall direct them. But the election once over, their tone changes completely. The nation returns to a passive, inert state; to nothingness, in fact; and the legislator assumes omnipotent sway. To him belong invention, direction, power and organization. Mankind have now nothing to do but to let things take their course; the hour of despotism has arrived. And bear in mind that all this is fatal; for the people, who were but a short time ago so enlightened, so moral, so perfect, have no longer any tendencies, or, if they have any, they all drag them toward degradation. They might be allowed a little liberty; but do you not know that, according to Considérant, liberty fatally leads to monopoly? Do you not know that liberty means competition, and that competition, according to Louis Blanc, is a system of extermination for the people and a cause of ruin to the middle class? It is for this reason that the more freedom nations enjoy the more complete is their extermination and ruin: witness Switzerland, Holland, England and the United States! Do you not know that, according to Louis Blanc, competition invariably leads to monopoly, and that, by the same course of reasoning, cheapness leads to exorbitant prices; that competition tends to exhaust the sources of consumption and forces production to an unnatural activity; that competition compels the increase of production and the decrease of consumption? Whence it follows that free nations produce more than can be consumed, that they are at the same time given over to oppression and madness, and that it is absolutely necessary that Louis Blanc have a hand in their government! What liberty can men be allowed to enjoy? Will you give them liberty of conscience? You will soon see them all availing themselves of the permission to become atheists. Liberty of education? But parents will very soon be paying professors to teach their children immorality and error; moreover, if we may believe M. Thiers, if education were left to national liberty, it would cease to be national, and we would bring up our children more after the manner of the Turks or Hindoos, than according to the noble ideas of the Romans, as is now the case. Freedom of labor? Why, freedom of labor means competition, and the result of competition is to leave all products unconsumed, to work the destruction of the people, and to ruin the middle class. Liberty of exchange? But it is a well-known fact that the protectionists have demonstrated to satiety that free exchange is ruinous, and that in order to grow wealthy by means of exchange, a man must exchange without freedom. Freedom of association? But according to the socialistic doctrine, liberty and association are exclusive, one of the other, since the attempt to deprive men of their liberty is merely to force them to association.
—Hence it is evident that socialistic democrats can not, in conscience, leave men any liberty, since of their very nature, if these gentlemen do not regulate them, they tend to every species of degradation and demoralization. This being the case, we are at a loss to divine on what ground they can so persistently demand, for these same men, universal suffrage. The pretensions of our socialistic organizers give rise to another question which I have often addressed to them, and to which, as far as I know, they have never offered any reply. Since the natural tendencies of mankind are so evil as to justify their being denied their liberty, how does it come to pass that the tendencies of the organizers are good? Do not legislators and their agents form part of the human race? Are they made of a different clay from the rest of mankind? They say that society, if left to itself, runs headlong to ruin, because its instincts are perverse. They claim for themselves the credit of arresting it in this downward course and guiding it in a better direction. Have they then received from heaven intelligence and virtues which place them outside of and above humanity? If so, let them show their credentials. They wish to be the shepherds, while we constitute their flock. This arrangement presupposes in them a superior nature, of which, before admitting it, we have very good right to demand the proof. We do not by any means deny them the right of inventing social combinations, of urging and extending their adoption, and of testing them upon themselves at their own expense and risk; we merely deny their right to impose these combinations upon us by means of the law, that is to say, by means of force, and of public contributions.
—We ask the Cabetists, Fourierists, Proudhonions and the protectionists to renounce, not their special ideas, but the idea, common to all of them, of forcibly subjecting us to their groups and series, their co-operative workshops, their banks to loan money without interest, their Græco-Roman morality, and their commercial restraints. All that we ask is, that they allow us the right to judge of their plans for ourselves, and to decline to take any part in them, either directly or indirectly, if we find that they are prejudicial to our interests or repugnant to our consciences. For to pretend to call in the aid of power and taxation, besides being an act of oppression and spoliation, implies, moreover, the injurious hypothesis of the infallibility of the organizer and the incompetency of mankind. And if humanity is incompetent to judge for itself, why do they talk to us of universal suffrage? This contradiction in their ideas has unfortunately been reproduced in historical facts, and, while the French people have surpassed all others in the achievement of their rights, or rather of their political guarantees, they have nevertheless been more ruled, more managed, more governed, more imposed upon, more trammeled, and been made the subject of more experiments, than any other nation on the face of the earth. They are also more exposed to revolutions than any other nation, as they most naturally would be under such circumstances.
—Once we adopt this idea, admitted by all French publicists, and which is so forcibly expressed by Louis Blanc when he says, "society receives its impulse from power"; once men consider themselves as sentient but passive beings, incapable of raising themselves by their own knowledge and their own energy to any moral height or to any condition of prosperity, and compelled to expect everything of the law; in a word, when they admit that their relations to the state are those of a flock to its shepherd, it is evident that the responsibility of the governing power is immense. Good and evil, virtue and vice, equality and inequality, wealth and misery, all flow from it. It is intrusted with everything, it undertakes everything, it does everything; it is therefore responsible for everything. If we are happy, it, with justice, demands our acknowledgment, but if we are wretched, we have no other recourse than this same governing power. Does it not, in principle, dispose of our persons and our goods? Is not the law omnipotent? In creating the university monopoly in France it has endeavored to respond to the hopes of the fathers of families, who have been deprived of their liberty; and if these hopes are deceived, whose fault is it? In regulating industry, it has undertaken to make it prosper, otherwise it would have been absurd to deprive it of its liberty; and if industry suffers, whose fault is it? In undertaking to regulate the balance of trade by means of the tariff, it has endeavored to bring about commercial prosperity; and if commerce, far from prospering, is really languishing, whose fault is it? In extending its protection to maritime armaments, in exchange for their liberty, it has endeavored to make them a source of income to the state; and if they are in reality a burden, whose fault is it? Thus there is not a single evil in the nation for which the government has not voluntarily rendered itself responsible. Is there any reason to wonder that suffering of every kind is a cause of revolution?
—And what is the remedy which our socialistic teachers propose? To extend the domain of the law, that is to say, the responsibility of the government, indefinitely. But if the government undertake to raise and to regulate salaries, and is unable to do it; if it undertake to assist all the unfortunate, and can not do it; if it undertake to furnish shelter to all working men, and can not do it; if it undertake to furnish tools to all mechanics, and can not do it; if it undertake to offer gratuitous credit to all who are in want, and can not do it; if, according to the words which we regret to acknowledge have flowed from the pen of de Lamartine, "the state takes upon itself the mission of enlightening, developing, fortifying, spiritualizing and sanctifying the souls of the people," and fails to fulfill it, is it not evidently more than probable that each of these deceptions must lead to an inevitable revolution?
—I now resume my thesis. Directly after the consideration of economic science, and at the very opening of the subject of political science, there arise the questions. What is law? what should it be? what is its domain? what are its limits? and, consequently. what is the limit of the legislator's power? I reply, without hesitation: Law is the common force organized to oppose injustice; to be brief, Law is justice. It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they antedate his elevation to power, and his duty is to strengthen them by every possible guarantee. It is not true that the mission of the law is to direct our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our sentiments, our labors, our exchanges, our gifts, and our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent one individual from usurping the rights of another in these matters. Law, since it has force for its necessary sanction, can not have any other legitimate domain than the legitimate domain of force, that is, justice. And, as each individual has not the right to resort to force except in case of legitimate defense, collective force, which is nothing more than the union of individual forces, naturally should not be applied to any other end. Law is, therefore, merely the organization of the right pre-existing in each individual, of legitimate self-defense.
—Law is justice. So utterly false is the opinion that it can oppress persons, or despoil them of their property, even for a philanthropic purpose, that its mission is to protect them. To say that the law can be at least philanthropic, provided it abstain from all oppression and all spoliation, involves a contradiction. Law can not avoid acting upon our persons and our goods; if it does not protect them, it violates them by the very fact that it acts, from the very fact that it exists.
—Law is justice. This is perfectly clear, simple, definite and defined, intelligible to every intellect, visible to every eye; for justice is a fixed, unalterable quantity, which does not admit of more or less. But once make religious, fraternal, leveling, philanthropic, industrial, literary or artistic laws, and you forthwith cast yourself into the infinite, the uncertain, the unknown; into an enforced utopia, or, what is worse, into a multitude of utopias, vying with each other to take possession of the law and to impose themselves in its place; for fraternity and philanthropy have not, like justice, fixed limits. Where will you stop? Where will the law stop? Some, like de Saint-Cricq, will extend their philanthropy only to certain industrial classes, and will demand of the law that it dispose of the consumers in favor of the producers. Others, with Considérant, will champion the cause of the laboring classes, and demand of the law for them, an assured minimum of wages, clothing, lodging, food, and all the necessaries of life. A third will say, with Louis Blanc, and justly, that this is but a rude and incomplete brotherhood, and that the law should supply every one with the implements of labor and education. A fourth will tell you that even such an arrangement leaves room for inequality, and that the law should introduce into the most remote hamlets luxury, literature and the arts. You will thus find yourself led to communism, or rather legislation will be—as it is already—the battlefield of every idle dream and of every covetous fancy.
—Law is justice. When I say this, I refer to a simple and steady government. And I defy any one to show me what could give rise to the thought of a revolution, an insurrection, or a simple riot against a public force which confines itself to the repression of injustice. Under such a government there would be more prosperity, and prosperity would be more equally distributed; and as to the ills which are inseparable from human nature, no one would think of laying them to the charge of the government, which would have no more to do with them than with the changes in the temperature. Has any one ever seen the people inaugurate an insurrection against the court of appeal, or break into the sanctuary of a justice of the peace to demand the minimum of wages, gratuitous loans, implements of labor, tariff favors, or community of labor? They know full well that these combinations are beyond the power of the judge, and they understand likewise that they are beyond the power of the law. But establish the law upon the principle of fraternity, proclaim that good and evil flow from it, that it is responsible for all individual suffering, and all social inequality, and you open the door to an endless series of complaints, animosities, troubles and revolutions.
—Law is justice. And it would be very strange if it could with equity be anything else. Is not justice right? Are not all rights equal? How then could the law interpose to subject me to the social plans of Mimerel, Melun, Thiers, or Louis Blanc, any more than to subject these gentlemen to my plans? Do you not believe that I have received from nature sufficient imagination to invent a utopia also? Is it the duty of the law to choose between so many chimeras and to place the public force at the service of one of them?
—Law is justice. Let no one say, as is said incessantly, that the law thus conceived, atheistical, individualistic and heartless, should model humanity after its own image. This is an absurd deduction well worthy of the governmental infatuation which sees humanity in the law. What! Must we cease to act because we are free? Must we be deprived of all power because we do not receive our power from the law? Must our faculties remain inert because the law confines itself to guaranteeing us the free exercise of these faculties? Must we forthwith abandon ourselves to atheism, isolation, ignorance, misery and egoism, because the law does not impose upon us any form of religion, method of association or system of education, or does not establish any process of labor, rule of exchange, or plan of bestowing charity? Must we, on this account, no longer recognize the power and goodness of God, or refuse to associate together, to aid one another, to aid our brethren in distress, to study the secrets of nature, and to aspire to the perfecting of our being?
—Law is justice. And under the law of justice, under the rule of right, under the influence of liberty, security, stability and responsibility each man will obtain his full value, and assert the full dignity of his being, and mankind will reach in a calm and orderly manner, slowly but surely, the degree of progress which it is destined to acquire.
—It seems to me as though the theory were my own; for, whatever question I submit to my reason, whether it be religious, philosophic, political or economic; whether it refer to prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, solidarity, property, labor, exchange, capital, wages, taxes, population, credit, or government; whatever point of the scientific horizon I take for the point of departure of my researches. I invariably end with this the solution of the social problem is to be found in liberty. And am I not borne out in my conclusion by experience? Cast your eyes over the globe. Which are the happiest, the most moral and the most peaceable nations? Those in which the law least interferes with the private activity of the citizens; those in which the government least makes itself felt; those in which individuality has the greatest sway, and public opinion the most influence; those in which the administrative machinery is least complicated; in which the taxes are lightest and most equally levied; in which popular discontents are most rare and have least occasion for their existence; those in which the responsibility of individuals and classes is most active, and where, in consequence, if morals are not perfect, they irresistibly tend to right themselves; those in which business transactions, agreements and associations are least trammeled; those in which labor, capital and the population experience fewest artificial obstacles; those in which men best follow their natural talent, and the thought of God prevails most over the inventions of men; those, in a word, which approach nearest to this solution: Within the bounds of right, everything by the free and perfectible spontaneity of man; nothing by law or force but universal justice.
- A Chronology of Bastiat’s Life and Work (1801-1850)
- A Reader’s Guide to the Works of Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)
- Bastiat’s Economic Thought
- Bastiat, Plenty and Dearth
- Bastiat, Spoliation by Law
- Bastiat’s Theory of Class: The Plunderers vs. the Plundered
- Cato Book Forum: Bastiat vol. 1
- Did Bastiat say “when goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”?
- Further Aspects of Bastiat’s Life and Thought
- Hazlitt on Bastiat
- Quotations by Bastiat on the State and the Free Market
- Resources on Bastiat
- Selected Quotations from Bastiat’s Collected Works vol. 1
- Sheldon Richman on Bastiat
- Walter Williams on Bastiat